A Sermon in America’s Civic Religion

The past four years made the usual bromides in Biden’s inaugural address sound newly fresh and relevant.

Joe Biden delivering his inaugural address
Jim Bourg / Reuters

Midway through Joe Biden’s first speech as president today, he said something that, in any other inaugural address, would have seemed so unobjectionable as to be pointless.

“What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans?” Biden said. “I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and, yes, the truth.”

In 2021, however, that wasn’t just a throwaway line: It drew an ovation from the limited crowd at the event.

Biden’s speech was well wrought, but it offered nothing unusual, nothing surprising, nothing especially memorable. Paradoxically, that was the source of its power. As Biden took the bully pulpit of the presidency, he delivered a sermon in the tradition of America’s civic religion. The basic foundation of American political rhetoric has long been a seamless, platitudinous blend of Christianity, rose-tinted history, and pop culture. Donald Trump discarded this, explicitly courting division and rancor. After four years of Trump, Biden’s bromides sounded newly fresh and relevant.

“This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” Biden said. “Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew. And America has risen to the challenge. Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded.”

These shopworn clichés are wheeled out at every inauguration, as much a part of the furniture as the blue carpet and the grandstand on the West Front of the Capitol. Many of us learned these ideas so long ago, in elementary-school social-studies classrooms, that they are just background noise.

But these statements feel less rote today, two weeks after Trump-incited violent insurrectionists stormed the same Capitol, seeking to overturn Biden’s election. As the new president said, “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” He also said the nation was carrying out “the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.” This is not quite true, though. On January 6, five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died.

It is not just the immediate context of the attempted coup that brought new meaning to the familiar lines. The whole of the Trump presidency reinforced the importance of these bedrock commitments and demonstrated what happens when they go missing. In 2017, standing in the same place, Trump delivered a stunningly dark warning about “American carnage.” Unlike many of his campaign promises, he delivered on it, with four years of white-supremacist marches, social unrest over policing, and the deaths of 400,000 Americans in a pandemic.

The day after Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted, against all evidence, that Trump had drawn a larger crowd than ever before. The day after that, the Trump aide Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s Chuck Todd with a straight face that he was simply offering “alternative facts.” No wonder, then, that a simple invocation of the importance of truth could become an applause line in today’s address.

As I have written before about Biden, the ability to sell banalities is something that separates failed politicians from successful ones. Giving a decent speech is one task, though; actually turning lofty rhetoric into results is quite another, and even harder in these polarized times. Many observers, including some elected officials in Biden’s own party, have questioned whether the president’s outreach to Republicans will work. He acknowledged the doubters today.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said. “I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”

But Biden insisted that there was a way out. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

Whether this hope is well founded, and whether those who supported Trump are willing to listen, will become clear over time. But some of Biden’s promises should be easy to keep.

“I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I'll defend our democracy,” he said. After the past month and the past four years, that alone would represent a great shift.